UPDATED 1:50 PM PT – Saturday, December 26, 2020
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, China’s ruling communist party took extensive steps to control the narrative surrounding the virus as well as to fight public opinion.
These documents show thousands of directives and memos reportedly from the country’s internet regulator, the ‘Cyberspace Administration of China.’ According to the documents, the internet regulator aimed to make the virus appear less threatening in addition to making authorities seem like they were competently handling the situation.
To do so, the Cyberspace Administration of China used specialized software to allow the government to track online trends, coordinate censorship activity and manage fake social media accounts.
These directives date back as far as early January. They mandated that news sites only use government-published reports when discussing coronavirus. Furthermore, news stations were forbidden from comparing the virus to the SARS outbreak of 2002.
At the beginning of February, Chinese President Xi Xinping called for tighter control of digital media with a directive saying regulators should work to ‘influence international opinion.’
On February 7, this came to a head with the death of coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang. He had warned of a new viral outbreak before succumbing to the virus himself.
Authorities began an immediate crackdown and said expressions of grief would be allowed, but anyone ‘sensationalizing’ the story would be dealt with ‘severely.’
Following Li’s death, online memorials vanished and police detained people who were working to archive deleted posts.
By late May, authorities were alerted to confidential opinion analysis reports published online. Officials ordered cyber administration offices to get rid of internal reports.
According to researchers, hundreds of thousands of people work part-time in China to help shape the country’s online narrative, including low-level government employees, university students and teachers.
This is not the first report that demonstrates China’s effort to censor its own people. Reports dating back to early 2020 showed the Chinese messenger app ‘We-Chat,’ owned by ‘Ten-Cent Holdings,’ blocked keyword combinations that criticized President Xi, local officials and policies linked to the outbreak.
The U.S. and other nations have long accused China of suppressing information about the coronavirus. This information could have potentially changed the tide of the outbreak.